Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid homage to Americans killed in World War II on Wednesday, but he declined to apologize for his nation’s role in forcing up to 200,000 women into sexual slavery during the war.
“My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II,” Abe said in an unprecedented address to a joint session of Congress.
Abe also visited the National World War II Memorial, which he described as “ a place of peace and calm that struck me as a sanctuary.” He said he thought about all the young people who’d lost their lives.
However, his address to Congress, the first by a Japanese leader, was marked by some tension and protest over Japan’s use of women, many of them Korean, as sex slaves during the war.
The audience included Yong Soo Lee, who was 16 in 1944 when she was forced into slavery. She made the trip to Washington from South Korea to personally seek an apology, and was a guest of Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., who’s pressed the issue for years.
“I heard no apology today,” Honda said afterward, adding that it was “utterly shameful and shocking” that Abe didn’t accept responsibility and issue a formal apology.
Protesters gathered outside the Capitol, as well, saying a formal apology from Abe was the only thing Japan could do to end the controversy over the abuse of so-called “comfort women” during the war.
“Of course I’m angry,” said Jungsil Lee, a South Korean-American from Rockville, Md., who’s president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues. “I really love Japan as a country and the culture. . . . I really want to move forward.”
Lee said Abe had spoken to Congress “at its sacred ground” but had used only vague and abstract terms to describe Japan’s history with sex slaves. She said he “has the full power and opportunity to solve this issue.”
The issue has dogged Abe during his four-city tour of the United States this week, prompting a protest in Boston on Monday, as well. In Los Angeles on Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that while Japan had expressed regret, “obviously something is missing” because survivors weren’t satisfied.
Abe acknowledged Japan’s history Wednesday, but he stopped short of an apology.
“History is harsh – what is done cannot be undone,” he said.
He said Japan had feelings of deep remorse over the war and that its actions also “brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries.”
“We must not avert our eyes from that,” he added.
At a news conference with President Barack Obama on Tuesday, Abe had said he was “deeply pained to think about the comfort women, who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking.”
And he said Japan would help make the world a place “with no human rights violations against women.”
“That is our strong resolve,” he said.
With Japan widely regarded as the last big obstacle for Obama’s plan to expand trade throughout the Pacific Rim, Abe also told Congress that he wants the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership to wrap up soon.
Many trade backers had hoped that an agreement would be announced this week, but the White House said more negotiations were needed over a U.S. push to sell more cars and farm goods in Japan.
“The TPP covers an area that accounts for 40 percent of the world economy and one-third of global trade,” Abe said. “We must turn the area into a region for lasting peace and prosperity. That is for the sake of our children and our children’s children.”
Abe concluded his speech by quoting from the song “You’ve Got a Friend,” written by singer Carole King. He recalled hearing it on the radio when he was young, saying it “flew out and shook my heart” and that the words were appropriate for the U.S. response to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011:
“When you’re down and troubled . . . close your eyes and think of me,” Abe said, “and I’ll be there to brighten up even your darkest night.”
“Yes,” he said, “we’ve got a friend in you.”